While achieving great sound in your playback system is something of an art, it all boils down to a simple concept: the music (or sound) is only as good as the weakest link. What are the links in the system? The source (CD, MP3, etc.), the sound-maker (speaker, earphones, etc.) and the processor (the player itself).
Think your ipod or iphone sounds great? Probably not, if you use the earphones that come with it. Why? ‘Cause those earphones are the weakest link in the audio chain. They’re ok if you’re commuting on the train and there is a lot of ambient noise, but for serious listening in a quiet environment, the trained ear can hear how bad the sound really is.
Think your Home-Theater-in-a-Box is awesome? Well, it might be an improvement over the tv’s sound, but I don’t recommend you turn it up too loud … a poor amplification stage will drive all those little satellite speakers to distortion, which means, basically, you’ll blow them up.
So how do you get great sound without spending a fortune? Well, good shopping skills help, and that means not going out and engaging in instant gratification when you seem something pretty and shiny. It also means not acting like a drone from 1984 and buying what everyone else says is “the best” music player.
Apple has created a very popular product with its ipod line, but you’re paying for the high resolution screen, wifi and bluetooth chip, and oh yeah, about 200% markup for Apple’s profits. Actual instrumented measurements of an ipod vs a Sandisk Clip put the Clip ahead on actual sound quality (represented by signal-to-noise and distortion measurements). The Clip’s output is unmangled by “sound-good” equalization. We won’t even address the shortcomings of being forced to buy music from iTunes in Apple’s proprietary format, having non-expandable storage, etc.
If you want good portable sound, the Clip’s the way to go. Add to that, a decent pair of earphones by Etymotic or Shure, and you will have the best sounding sound that $150-$200 can buy. It will spank those iPods and Crapple earphones to the ground. In fact, it will sound so good, that if your source music isn’t good enough, you’ll hear just how bad it is.
Don’t buy any music with lower than 256 kb encoding. Even that will sound poor the better your playback system gets. But most people will never venture into enough of an investment to hear how bad it really is. Personally, my preference is still to buy a CD for music that I care about, rip that to FLAC or OGG to have a portable version. But if I buy digital music, I get it from Amazon, which generally sells 256 kb MP3s.